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It’s tough for a sketch troupe to distinguish itself on the comedy landscape. Everyone has their genre favorites, from Monty Python to Tim & Eric, and comparisons are inevitable. But Aunty Donna, a six-person sketch troupe from Australia, is setting itself apart with a high-energy, ultra-silly comedy.
They can be silly and absurd like Monty Python and The Mighty Boosh. Or scatological like Mr. Show. But they don’t look or feel like any other sketch troupe or show. “I think the longer you’re in it, the more people start to understand what your style is without the reference points,” says Zachary Ruane, speaking by phone from Los Angeles with his fellow performers, Mark Samual Bonanno and Broden Kelly. “I think we’re a very contemporary group.”
Only three of the group — Bonanno, Kelly and Ruane — act in the videos or perform live. Although sound designer/composer Tom Armstrong will be supporting them onstage as a musician for the first time on this tour, which comes to Boston’s The Wilbur theater on Wednesday, June 13. The other members are writer/director Sam Lingham and film director/editor Max Miller. That separation of duties allows them to present their comedy in different formats — video, audio and live. In February, they released “The Album” in Australia and cracked the top ten on the ARIA charts (the Australian equivalent of the Billboard charts). They tour frequently in Australia and the U.K.
Most fans’ first experience with Aunty Donna is through their YouTube channel. They release videos in batches, like a season of a television show. Sometimes, one of those videos strikes a chord with a worldwide audience. When the troupe played The Wilbur last year on their first North American tour, most of the crowd sang along with the show closer, a song from their “Bikie Wars” video. “The idea of a bunch of people in their early 20s filming some stuff, chucking it up on the Internet, and then suddenly hundreds of people on the other side of the world are singing along to it five years later — it’s wild,” says Ruane. “It’s incredible.”
“Big Boys” is a different show from the one Aunty Donna brought to the states last year, taking its inspiration from arena rock. “How far can you take a big rock ‘n’ roll show and make it a silly sketch show at the same time?” says Kelly. “That’s what ‘Big Boys’ is.”
Interviewing Ruane, Bonanno and Kelly is sometimes like a private performance. An idea sparks a pile-up and all three performers start pitching in, playing with the language or concept and taking it to an absurd or silly conclusion. Take this exchange, when Bonanno begins to explain the group’s philosophy for steering towards the funniest idea and away from any deeper, potentially controversial statements.
Bonanno: “We like to keep things very apolitical. Which was never really a sort of mantra of ours, but it’s just the way that things have worked out. I don’t think any of us has really been interested in hot takes. Or hot cakes. We’re more waffle — ”
Ruane: “For the record, I really like hot cakes.”
Kelly: “That is a hot take.”
Bonanno: “That is a hot take on hot cakes.”
Ruane: “That is the only hot take you’re going to get from me, is that I like hot cakes.”
They’re not out to change your mind, they just want the laughs. The mantra is “whatever’s funniest,” which means finding the best way to present the same source material in different formats. “Depending on the form that you’re using, whether that be television or online or live, then whatever’s funniest changes,” says Ruane.
The troupe’s ability to adapt comes from their theatre background. Five of the six members met while studying at the Ballarat Arts Academy, now known as the Federation University Australia Arts Academy (Max Miller was an old high school friend of Kelly and Armstrong’s). Everyone had interests in different skills, but focused on the same goals when they started shooting videos in 2011. “We all sort of came out of the same area and had this similar mindset that we would forego financial stability and spend our 20s being naughty little boys,” says Kelly. “We all had the same sense of humor and mindset so we thought, well, let’s just all do this together. We were like, we all want to make careers out of these different fields, let’s work really hard and become really good at all these different fields and see how far it really takes us.”
One simple choice the troupe made early helped them to develop their frenetic stage style when a theater professor impressed upon them the idea that a production shouldn’t have blackouts or clunky transitions. “The audience never gets a chance to reset,” says Bonanno. “You don’t have a blackout where they have the chance to realize that they’re in a theater and disengage and want to think about checking their phone. It’s all about keeping everyone’s eyeballs on us and keeping everyone in that room 100 percent engaged for the 90 minutes we’re onstage.”
The shows are heavily scripted and rehearsed, but they came to find more places to improvise the more confident they got. Now, it’s irrepressible. “When we first started, we were afraid of it,” says Kelly. “We were like actors. We would go word to word, exactly the same every night. And then when we started doing the Edinburgh Fringe, and we put more hours into what we were doing, we became more confident, none of us could ever go back to doing the same show every night.”
With this new tour, the guys are hoping to make themselves as much a staple in North America as they are in Australia and the U.K. “What YouTube has created for us is this really die-hard fan base all over the world,” says Kelly. “Boston and New York and Chicago, all these spaces, we want our fans to see us just as much as our Australian fans.”
Ruane adds, “That’s how we built out a lot of our audiences in Melbourne and Edinburgh and those sorts of things, so I think we’d just like to get out there and for people to see us and to realize we’re not just a YouTube group.”
Aunty Donna brings its “Big Boys” tour to The Wilbur June 13.
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